Monday, March 24, 2014

Ain't It The Truth?

It's March.  Late March to be precise.  The sun is shining brightly, yet it's 24 degrees outside my studio this afternoon, with a wind chill that makes it feel like zero.  Snow and ice blanket the surrounding countryside as deeply as a mid-January day.

Aahhh.... Spring!

Now, I will grant you that most of the country views March as the first month of Spring, but in Maine it's the last month of Winter.  Actually, our seasons go like this:  Spring is April, May and June.  Summer is July 10-18.  August, September and October are Fall, and November through March is Winter. 

This snow and cold has been helpful with one thing, though:  My current painting.  It's a Winter scene, and I've been using this extended Winter to step outside and study light, shadow and snow effects to make my picture more truthful.  And that's where I'm going completely wrong...

Don't get me wrong-- I like the picture.  Or rather, I like the potential it still holds.  But I'm having my usual fight between Truth vs Art.  I've written about this ongoing battle before, as astute readers of my blog (and you know who you are) will attest.  (No, not you.  The one in the back over there.  Yeah-- you.)  It seems the paintings I admire most are beautiful combinations of reality, but within the framework of great Art.  For instance, take a peek at one of my favorite Andrew Wyeth Paintings:

Most folks think of this painting as a realistic, truthful depiction of a Maine house.  But in reality, this isn't what Andy saw at all.  Well, kinda, but not in the strictest sense.  The Olsen house here does look like this, and he painted it very recognizably.  But what's important is that he painted it the way he felt about it.  So he took out any distracting trees or useless details that have nothing to do with his emotions about the place.  He simplified subordinate passages and used detailed precision on the important ones.  He used his signature color scheme of greys and ochres to tie all the elements together.  So yeah, it's what he saw, but more importantly-- he made it look like Art.

And that's the problem I'm having with my little painting.  It's the court stenographers transcription of a trial as opposed to the newspapers story as opposed to the novel about the trial.  Know what I mean?  It's Linus mirthlessly plinking Jingle. Bells. Jingle. Bells. on his toy piano as opposed to Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way...  So yeah, my painting looks like a truthful depiction of a scene set during a Winter's afternoon.  But it ain't Art.  Not yet.  But it will be.

Maybe to keep myself from being tempted to overly "truth" it up, I should wait to finish it until after Spring arrives.

And the way things feel outside, that won't be anytime soon.  After all, it's still Winter...


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

If It's All The Same To You...

All aboard for a ride on a twisting train of thought...

After a couple of weeks of research, sketching and doing color studies for a painting I'm starting, I got the thought that I have evolved into a slow, methodical painter.  Not that I want to be, mind you.  My slowness is just the result of a combination of my current painting technique and my tendency to over-think everything.  In reality I have the attention span of a gnat coupled with the patience of a two-year old.  So on occasion I will cast an envious glance at those painters who can seemingly bang out a complex painting in just a few hours.

There are a couple of different ways one can acquire speed in painting, I guess.  One is to have a complete and total mastery over every element of color and paint application possible.  The other is to do things the same way every time.  It's a lot easier to paint a landscape, say, when one paints trees and skies with the same colors and in the same way in every painting, changing only the composition.  It doesn't make any difference whether the tree is on the right or the left of the picture when you've painted it the same way before.  Same thing with seascapes; When an artist uses the same ocean, rocks and sand in every painting, all that has to be done is re-arrange them from picture to picture.  If you do it that way, you can bang those bad boys out!

Cranking out pictures in this way isn't anything new, by the way, it's actually a tried and true manner of painting that artists have done for centuries.  Take Thomas Buttersworth for example. 

I recently read a delightful book called Caveat Emptor by Ken Perenyi.  (It's available at Amazon Books).  Perenyi was an art forger who made a handsome living passing off paintings done in the style of 19th century painters.  He didn't copy known paintings by these people, ("Hey look!  I found another DaVinci version of the Mona Lisa!") but by painting pictures in the style of those artists, he was able to claim he found them tucked up in an attic somewhere.  If you want to know how he fooled all the experts with his fakes, you have to read the book-- and I recommend it.

Anyway, Perenyi noticed that painters like Buttersworth and others used repeated elements in their paintings.  With Buttersworth, the skies were almost always painted the same way, along with the ocean and backgrounds.  He even re-used the yachts many times.   Just as Buttersworth did, all Perenyi had to do was apply those motifs in different configurations and voila!  A new Buttersworth has been found!  Now, Buttersworth and all the other painters who did this didn't care that their paintings carried redundancies because who was ever going to see twenty of them lined up on a wall?  In those days most people never went to fancy art galleries, and heck, back then even the interweb was still a gleam in Al Gore's eye!  And that got me thinking about artists of today.

There's a current artist out there (among many) whose works I admire whenever I see them pop up in social media.  Well, Facebook really, because that's where my social media knowledge begins and ends.  Anyhow, I went to that artists web site to check out more paintings.  What I saw astounded me.

Like many web sites, this artist had about twenty thumbnails on the page, my computer screen making them little more than a postage stamp in size, and each one at that small scale was indistinguishable from the other!  The colors, the subjects, the orientation of the paintings-- all looked identical.  It wasn't until you enlarged them that you could see the (very subtle) differences between each painting.  Look-- it's one thing to have a style that's identifiable, I get that, but having each painting look the same is to me the kiss of death.  Buttersworth could pull it off back in his day, but in today's Google Image, instant world?  Not so much. 

Yeah, I know all about that "Paint what sells" philosophy, (and I'm still trying to catch that elusive snipe myself) but I would think that having your paintings be of the same subjects done in the same manner would have to make it awfully hard to sell, wouldn't it?  Think about it: Why would a collector keep coming back to purchase the same painting? I mean, if you've seen one, you've seen them all, am I right?  I would assume that you'd have to keep finding new buyers, but I am on the painting side of the ledger, not the client's side.  So what do I know?  Still, I have a hard time believing that a gallery would ring up an artist and say, "Hey-- people love your painting of ______!  No, no-- don't change a thing!  Keep painting them exactly the same!"

But look at artists whose style is iconic.  Andrew Wyeth painted in browns and grays in an abstract/hyper realistic way-- if you get what I mean.  Sure, he revisited themes; The Olsen's of Cushing Maine, The Kuerner's of Chadd's Ford, Helga-- but he didn't paint twenty different versions of Christina's World.  You know, with Christina in the left corner of this one, and in the upper right corner of that one, and in this one she's in the middle of the field-- No, one was enough.  But that's kind of like the impression I got when I looked at that afore-mentioned artists web site; (and many others) Twenty different versions of the same thing.  So with Wyeth, while his style remained the same, every painting he did was unique.  (Oh, sure-- others have utilized the Wyeth look in their paintings, and do you know what those artists are called?  Painter's in the school of... Or, painters in the manner of... Or, Copy Cats.  But that's a different subject.)

If you've studied enough art, you should be able to spot an artist by their style first, and subject second.  In a room full of South Western paintings, a Maynard Dixon should jump off the wall.  On a web page of Impressionists, the difference between a Monet landscape and a landscape by William Merritt Chase should be as obvious as the nose on your face.  It's not the subjects of the paintings that identify them, but in there manner of treatment.

I'm not writing all this just to pick on one poor artist; Just that I've seen this trait before.  So to be clear-- I'm not saying that person, or all artists should change their style and subject with every painting. Oh no, on the contrary; Find your own style, and it should be as unique as your thumb print, just maybe you shouldn't do the same painting over and over.  I know it's a fine line between being known as a "Painter of ______" and a "One-Trick Pony".  But doesn't it stand to reason that if you always paint the same things the same way-

It's just all the same?



Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Scythe Of Relief

The Scyther

Remember when I was talking about doing this painting of a guy haying in a field?  And I said how much I like to plan stuff?  Remember?  And I went how much fun it was to think up stuff, like, out of my head?  Remember?  And now here it, I mean he, no-- this painting is done.  Remember when I talked about it?

Well, here it is: The Scyther, oil on canvas 24X24 inches.  I was gonna call it The Scythist, but I thought it would sound a bit pretentious...

I had a blast with this one, I must admit.  I really got the whole idea for a composition when I saw an old photo of clouds I had taken on a lovely summer's afternoon.  I imagined my farmer silhouetted against those clouds as he swung his scythe through the weeds (which look remarkably like the ones in my field...). 

Speaking of clouds, they are a perfect opportunity to loosen up and go abstract.  If you think about it, clouds are just water vapor, and as such they can reflect and refract all kinds of light and color.  Really, you can put all the colors of the rainbow in your clouds, and no one is the wiser.  I tried to keep that in mind when I did my sky.

I also wanted to stay loose and have some fun with my farmers shirt.  Since he is kind of leaning over with his back to the sun, it gave me a good chance to reflect the sky and the ground into his shirt.  I did the same thing with his pants and boots

I do have a couple antique scythes kicking around that I used for props in this painting.  And again, I wanted to keep things loose, but accurate.  But it was my lovely Ellen that reminded me that I needed to put a bolt in the bottom of the handle.  Can you see it in the picture below?

Keeping it real for Ellen!

Anyway, I always breathe a scythe   sigh of relief whenever I'm done a painting, but I'm also a little sad that I had to end the good times.  So because I had so much fun with this one, I'm doing another old-time scene.   It's getting to be maple sugar season soon.

Stay tuned...

Friday, January 31, 2014

Let's Take A Closer Look, Shall We?

I know what you're thinking.  You're saying, "Gosh Kev, it's been days since you last posted an insightful and eloquent commentary about Norman Rockwell.  What took so long?"

Well, first off-- you're welcome.  And secondly, February 3rd marks the one hundred twentieth anniversary of his birth in 1894.  Since he's been in the news recently with the selling of one of his masterpieces for 46 million dollars, and had a bad book written about him, I thought I'd take a moment to show why I like the guy:

Say what you will about his impact on American Art, he was a great painter.  Don't believe me?  C'mere, I'll show you.

The above advertisement was for a little mom-and-pop telephone company named AT&T.  In 1949 they commissioned him to portray a lineman in the act of stringing wires.  Back then, telephones were connected by wires.  How archaic!  Anyway, it was a simple enough project; One lone guy against a nondescript back-drop.  Just a typical, run of the mill assignment for any illustrator.  The painting looks like this:

You can already see the differences between the poor reproduction of the ad against the painting. Illustrators got paid for the ad, but not for the size of the painting.  Most of them would probably have used cheap illustration board for this ad and made it relatively small, say 24X36 inches or even smaller.  After all, the image was only going to be seen in newspapers and magazines. Rockwell, though, painted this (as he did almost all of his work) on premium Belgian linen.  And he made it huge.  The actual painting is five feet by three and a half feet.  It was common practice by most illustrators to ship off their finished pieces to the client unframed.  Again, it's not going to a gallery or anything, so what's the point?  Not Norman.  He always had his paintings framed before he sent them off.  He felt it made a greater visual impact to the art editor, and thus would get him more work in the future.

Apparently, it worked...

To get this scene, AT&T set up a ten foot telephone pole, and supplied the worker.  Rockwell's photographer set up below and took photos at Rockwell's direction.  The first posing session was in early spring.  Norman came up with a design for the painting, but apparently either he or AT&T wasn't happy enough, so that summer they did it all over again.  That meant all the work he did earlier was out the door, and he had to start from scratch once again.

Next came the painting.  If you are ever in New England, take a trip to the beautiful Berkshire area of western Massachusetts and visit the Norman Rockwell Museum.  Not only is this painting there, but even better-- they let you take photos!  Recently I visited there and took full advantage of that policy.  (Don't forget to click on these up-coming photos for an even larger view.)

One of the knocks on Rockwell was that he used photos in his work.  The feeling was that all he did was copy them.  In truth those photos were not only in black and white, but they were rarely the entire scene.  He pieced them all together from the collection of specific shots; an arm, then a leg, then a foot, etc.  Rockwell then added his brilliant sense of color.  Take a look at this segment of the painting:

See how the man's face is seemingly a monotone shadow?  Let's look closer:

He didn't get those colors from a black and white photo!  It is a bit blurred, and that's not because of my photography, but because he didn't have a lot of detail in his reference.  But rest assured that if he had wanted detail, he would have had his photographer do a close-up.  At that point in his career Rockwell never did "Good enough..."
Now, when we look at that ordinary plaid coat the lineman is wearing, it would seem rather a simple thing to paint, wouldn't it?  I mean black and red.  How tough is that?  Here's how Rockwell treated that coat:

Thick, juicy impasto paint with every shade of red, orange, pink, brown, black and blue you can think of.  Can you feel that heavy wool?  Absolutely marvelous!

Have you ever stood beside a telephone pole?  Its bland weathered grey wood seems rather featureless.  How would you paint it?  Here's how Norman handled it:

Can you see the thick clumps of color applied with a trowel?  Rockwell used variegated colors quite frequently.  In his paintings a white shirt is never white, and here a grey telephone pole is a wild array of ochres, grays, browns, reds and blues.  Did he need to do this?  No, not for an advertisement-- but yes to make it Art.

Speaking of variegating colors, check out how he treated the lineman's simple brown leather belt:

My word-- are you seeing this?  From a distance (and scaled down to a photograph) it seems brown enough.  But this belt is anything but brown.  Oh, and don't forget that bolt sticking through the pole; it too is filled not only with detail, but life.

Now, the object of this commission was to show some fancy, high tech gadget that AT&T was trotting out.  They were very persnickety for him to show it in beautiful, but exacting detail:

I'd say another job well done.  (And I didn't even mention that spectacular apple tree he painted!  It's as good as any branch that Andy Wyeth drew).  All in all, there were eleven changes that AT&T had Rockwell make before they were satisfied.  Of course, that doesn't count how many changes Norman made until he was satisfied-- all the while knowing that most of the nuance he imparted would be lost in the printing.

It's this seemingly simple painting for an ordinary advertisement that makes me want to bow down in front of it and say, "I'm not worthy... I'm not worthy!"  The amount of effort and attention to detail-- while still making a beautiful piece of art-- is breath-taking. 

THAT'S why I am a fan of Norman Rockwell.

So happy birthday Norm!  The good may die young, but the greats like you will live on forever.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Falling In Love With Love

Everybody knows a "Debi".  She was engaged to be married to Doug, who was a real nice guy.  But the concept of a lifetime of marriage and devotion never entered into Debi's head.  We all knew what she was more in love with:

The Wedding.

Every topic of conversation was a kick-start for her to bring up The Wedding.  "Gee, I hope it's not raining like this on The Wedding!"  Or, "Oh, I hope it's a beautiful day like this for The Wedding!"  She talked non-stop about the planning of The Wedding;  What napkins to order, the flowers the bridesmaids would use, the invitations, the booze at the reception-- it was all about The Wedding.

Forty-eight months after The Wedding came the inevitable Divorce.

I will admit that when it comes to planning paintings, I am Debi times ten.  I thoroughly enjoy doing prep sketches.  I relish dwelling over the design.  I delight in thinking about how great I can make my idea.  It's not the marriage that's exciting, it's The Wedding!  Anyway, it's OK to snap a photo of a nice scene and make a painting from it, but I have to say my passion is to try and make a realistic painting from my imagination.  It's not easy, and it takes a ton of planning and preparation, but that's why I love it.  Take the picture I'm working on now, for instance.

I love history.  The vast majority of my landscapes might be scenes from today, but I hardly ever put modern elements in them.  I'm the old barn, rock wall and open field kind of guy.  Could it be today, or one hundred years ago?  Every once in a while I get the itch to do a straight-up historical picture.  I've wanted to paint a farmer haying a field for quite some time.  I would look longingly at my antique hay scythe and try to drum up an idea, but no luck.  Last week as I was finishing up a painting, the idea came to me.  I set up a mirror, grabbed my scythe and did this:

In case you don't know what this is, it's a guy haying a field with a scythe.  My idea was to have a semi-worms eye view of this guy coming at you silhouetted by the clouds of a hot summer day.  This sketch grabbed my attention.  I then went to the interweb to view videos of people scything hay so I could be sure I got the posture correct. 
Yes, everything is on the web!
Realizing that my mirror image had put my man in the wrong direction, I just reversed the photo to this because a right-handed hayer will throw the hay over to his left:

OK, now I needed someone to pose for me so I could get the proper view.  Often, I will take a photo of me posing, but I knew the camera perspective wasn't going to be as accurate as I needed it to be.  So I used my buddy Jim:

I did use photos (obviously) for wrinkles and such, because Jim's old, arthritic back wasn't up for long poses.  I did do a thorough drawing of him, though.  He thinks I made him look fat, but I reminded him that charcoal adds twenty pounds...  So anyway, putting all the info together, I drew up a 12X12 inch preparatory drawing:

I used all that planning and design stuff on this.  I want the clouds to kind of swoop down to the blade in the lower right corner.  I intend to give the blade a sparkling sun-glint, so I put a far off stand of dark trees behind it to make it more obvious.  I love doing these drawings because I can monkey with them to my hearts content.  If the whole thing blows up in my face, all I've lost is a piece of paper and cheap charcoal. 

The painting will measure 24X24inches.  So I needed to size the drawing up to get it on the canvas.  Lucky for me, I have a large screen HDTV in my studio I use as a monitor for my computer.  It has a 37inch screen, so I took a photo of my drawing, then blew it up on the screen to 24inches.  From there, I took some tracing paper and copied the drawing.

After that was done, I smeared soft charcoal all over the back of the tracing, then re-copied the whole thing onto the canvas.

I gridded the whole thing so my reference points would line up correctly.  Taking a break from all that, I also took a moment to do a quick color sketch.

Sure, it may not look like much, but it gave me a good idea of how I want to approach my color scheme. 

Now that I had the drawing lightly traced onto the canvas, I went back over it and redefined the entire thing.  I tweaked a leg here, I changed the scythe a scosh, and I noodled the sky a tad bit.  Now the canvas looks like this all ready for paint!

Now that the planning is just about done, the next thing is the walking down the aisle.  I know everything is going to be perfect and just like I always dreamed!

Just like Debi's Wedding...


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Look At The Fish!


Louis Agassiz was the most renowned scientist of the 19th Century.  He was so well respected that students from all over the world made pilgrimages to study under him.  One student recalled that Agassiz put him in a room alone with a smelly dead cod and said simply, "Look at the fish."  After several hours Agassiz came back in and asked the student to tell him about the fish. 

"Well, it has scales, and some fins..." stammered the student, but Agassiz cut him off.

"You are telling me what you already know about it.  Look at the fish!" Agassiz exclaimed, then left the student alone with the fish for several more hours.  When the great scientist returned, the student was able to go into far greater detail about the fish.

What on Earth does that story have to do with the Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover from World War One?  A lot.

If you are going to read only one book about Norman Rockwell, do yourself a favor and do not make it American Mirror by Deborah Solomon.  Her agenda  thesis behind her writing this is to show how Rockwell was a closet homosexual leaning toward pedophilia.  She asserts that his repressed impulses are hidden in his art. 

Yeah... What?

The author is an art critic who has spent the vast majority of her life telling us what to think in regards to the unintelligible drips and splatters that comprise late 20th Century art.  And it's a good gig; Who's gonna say you're wrong if you write some mumbo-jumbo about some smeared paint on canvas?  But the more one does that, the more one can fall into the intellectual vacuum of inserting one's own emotions instead of the artists.  It's a Rorshach Test approach to critiquing.

("I see butterflies kissing!"  "I see an angry Mommy coming to beat her child over spilt milk...")

The problem starts when you try the same mumbo-jumbo on paintings that are meant to be painfully obvious.  So, in Ms Solomon's interpretation, almost every painting Rockwell did holds some clue as to his repressed homosexuality.  Now, really,  that an artist could be gay should come as no shock.  (Warhol, anyone?)  And to imply that one is gay should be met with the Seinfeld Defense: "Not that there's anything wrong with that!"  But it's the author's claiming that Rockwell was attracted to little boys because of his gay leanings speaks more about her mindset about homosexuality than anything Rockwell painted.  If one is Gay, then one is naturally a pedophile.  It's just common sense!  Her "proof" behind her brilliant theory?  He painted little boys a lot.  And he did it really well...

Yeah... What? 

I mentioned in an earlier post about how Rockwell was beholden to his clients, advertisers and magazines editors.  It was they who dictated what Rockwell painted.  Even when he was given free reign as to his depiction of a subject, the idea almost always came from them first, and he still had parameters within which he had to work.  Remember, Rockwell was an Illustrator, not a Fine Art Artist. 

Needless to say, Rockwell's family-- who cooperated with her for this book-- are very unhappy.  Fellow Rockwell fans and scholars are calling Bullshit on her bat-shit crazy concept.  Personally, I'm not going to go deeply into refuting charge after ridiculous charge.  I'll give you two paths to follow if you are so inclined.  One is this excellent article, and this one is a follow up.

I'm going to talk about the fish. 

Look at this painting again:

In Solomon's world here's proof of Rockwell's homoerotic tendencies.  What do we have here?  Two Navy guys-- and really, aren't all Navy guys gay?  I mean, it goes without saying.  What are they doing?  Fondling each other.  One is evidently going to be the "Pitcher" and the other one will definitely be the "catcher".  You can tell this by the loving caress the gay sailor on the right (the one with the pretty bow) is giving the gay bloke on the left.  Good Lord, how obvious does Rockwell have to make it?

No.  Look at the fish!

The sailor on the right got a letter from his girl back home.  See the envelope and picture he's holding?  You can tell she's a girlfriend (or wife) -but not just a friend- from the lipstick kiss next to her picture.  The sailor is so lost in his reverie about how much he misses her, and all the fun they had, that he forgets where he's at and who he's with as he gently touches his friend's knee-- as if he were his lady love.  His friend is a big, tough, lantern-jawed old salt whose twice the size of his little friend.  His machismo is evident in his tattoos and his pipe smoking.  He looks down at his friend whose hand is on his knee with a "Dude, you better get your hand off my knee quick!"  attitude.

That's the joke!  And that's all it is. 

Maybe Rockwell didn't quite have the chops this early in his career to pull off the perfect facial expressions to drive his point home.  But he did give the picture enough clues to let us know what is going on.  All we have to do is look.

Deborah Solomon could have stood a lesson from Louis Agassiz.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Ice Storm

I have never let it be a secret of my disdain for Winter.  It is bone chilling, nose freezing, eye watering, feet freezing cold.  Yeah, you can keep your muffs, mittens, skis and Ski-Doo's and leave me my golf clubs and a freshly manicured park of green grass to hit and chase a golf ball anytime! 

But I will also readily admit that Winter has it's moments of beauty.  I do enjoy a pristine field of un-marred new fallen snow.  Or the tender pastel colors that play upon it as the sun rises.  I am arrested by the sight of sunlight glistening and shimmering like a million prisms through ice coated branches.  But eventually the field becomes broken up by snowmobiles and dog tracks.  The roads become lined with dirty brown ice-sludge.  The ice on the trees melts away, leaving the stiff grey branches silhouetted against the cold blue sky like a hand reaching out from the grave... 

So what I have tried to show in my latest painting is the Beauty and the Beast, shall we say, of Winter.  That lovely blanket of pristine snow, the beautiful colors of the ice;  all about to be swept away as a plow comes rumbling through the scene.  My beautiful partner Ellen mentioned to me that this is the first time I have ever put a telephone pole and wires into a painting.  It's also the first non-horse conveyance I've painted, too. 

I guess it's my nod that life has progressed beyond the 19th Century.

Another thing about this painting is the technical part.  Yes, I saw this scene (without the plow) and took several photos, but I actually planned out each element.  Here's the concept drawing:

After that came the color study, etc...  Notice however that I don't have a plow in this drawing?  I noticed early in the actual painting process that I had fallen upon an old bad habit:  I lead your eye to... nothing. 

I did a post recently about studying design and all that, and one of the things that slapped me like an open hand on my forehead was the necessity of leading your masses to the point of interest.  Now, that sounds like a no-brainer, doesn't it?  But I really only had the "lead your eye" part down.  I'm pretty good at arranging a painting to keep the viewers eye inside the frame, but I was inconsistent at leading them to a specific spot.  That's where the snow plow came in.  All the lines and angles in this piece keep you inside the frame and bring you to the center-- but I had nothing there!  So, I put in the plow.  And in doing so, Voila!  Now I had a reason for the painting instead of just another pretty, but innocuous scene.

Could it have been a sleigh, or a cross-country skier?  Yeah, but then it would have looked old-fashioned, and I'm all about the modern...


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Hitting The Books

I remember well when I was just a wee laddy in school.  To say I was a poor student would be like saying the Pyramids are a pile of rocks in the desert; Accurate, but woefully understated.  I thought that diagramming a sentence was just like deciphering hieroglyphics.  Math was like Greek to me, and science like Latin.  (Which most of it actually is, but you get my point).  I'll never forget my favorite teacher, Mr. Jones-- or maybe it was Mrs. Palmer, whatever-- sat me down and said words that have stuck with me all my life:

"Maybe this whole book learning thing isn't for you.  Have you thought about taking up art?"

Since then, I have been on my journey to teach myself a thing or two about painting pictures.

Now, I've mentioned more than once about my being self-taught and all, but I don't recall saying how I go about it.  It's kind of like the way I taught myself to play the piano:  Keep hitting notes until you figure out where the right ones are.  Same way with painting.  I set out to teach myself painting by mixing paint and slapping it on until it started to look like something.  It's the sledgehammer at a concrete wall approach, because God forbid I actually looked for instruction on how to do it. 

Nowadays there is lots of instruction out there; Art School and Ateliers.  DVD's.  How-To books and magazines by the score.  Personal instruction and workshop's from proven Pro's.  Or, the way I do it: Study Art and Artists I admire and try to learn from their work. 

Over time I have noticed three commonalities in the really good artists.  One is great drawing ability.  The other is beautiful color sense, and the third is impeccable design in their paintings.  (The unspoken fourth is Talent, of course.  But you gotta be born with that.  Thankfully you can learn the first three).  Anyway, I figured there must be some kind of principle to follow to make a great painting.  I learned enough by studying those artists to recognize and try to incorporate effective design and good color in my paintings.  But alas, knowing a principle exists is not the same as knowing precisely how to do it.  If I am being honest, I have to admit that when a painting of mine exhibited the attributes I just stated, it was because I was lucky enough to combine those elements, as opposed to purposely imparting them into the picture. 

I knew I needed to learn a lot more, and looking at pictures or slapping paint wasn't going to be enough.  I mean there's only so much dubbing around you can do.  I have always disliked How-To books because I've always been interested in the Why as well as the How.  Somewhere, there must be something I could read that would explain those principles.   Luck was on my side.

A few months ago, while browsing in a used book store, I came upon this book:

It's not a How-To book by any means, but an in-depth examination on Design principles and Color Theory.  In other words, it was exactly what I needed!  It was published in 1951 for art school students, and while it may be a school book, it reads fairly well.  Most importantly, it showed me that effective design can actually be done without guesswork.  Yeah, who knew?

The other half of the book covers Color Theory.  Now, I'm color-blind and I'm not ashamed to admit it.  However, it goes without saying that I can struggle mightily with my "See the color, Paint the color" approach to painting.  This book shows how to approach color in a more selective and harmonious manner. What that means is that I can use a color scheme that I choose instead of being a slave to what lies in front of me.  It's a good work-around for my lack of true color vision.

If you are interested in this book, (and really, you should be) here's a link.  It is out-of-print, and some copies can be somewhat pricey.  Oh, I got mine for $2.50.  No lie.

While I was on my education binge, I decided to pick up another great book on the same subject of Design and Color Theory.  Andrew Loomis' Creative Illustration.

I've mentioned countless times of my great respect and admiration for the great Illustrators of the 20th Century.  Why I love them is because they were great Artists.  And what makes a great Artist in my book?  Great drawing, great color sense and superb designs.  Loomis was a Master in all three phases.

"But wait a minute, Kev," I can hear you say.  "You paint little landscapes and such, not illustrations."  To that, I say:  "It doesn't matter WHAT the picture is, an illustration, or a quiet landscape, it's how the painting was planned that is important!"  In this book, Loomis goes into great and very readable detail on how to make an effective, dynamic painting.  Maybe, like me, you're not all that interested when he elaborates about the difficulties in magazine illustration as opposed to bill-board adds, but his explanation of design and color makes it all worthwhile.  Luckily for us, this book has been reissued.  Go get it.

One last thought on all this new-fangled knowledge I've unearthed.  After immersing myself in these books, I was able to look at my own work with new eyes.  Instead of wondering where I went wrong, I could see and understand where my problems were.  I could even understand where I went right.  Hopefully, I can get it right a lot more in the future.

Who knew hitting the books could be so informative?


Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly Of 2013

Down To The Water.  My last painting of 2013.

You know, we tend to think that most years are memorable in some way.  The year of a special occasion; Births, deaths, weddings, divorces, promotions and new jobs.  We remember those years as important mile-markers on our journey on the road of life.  But in reality, most years are uneventful and unremarkable paving stones on that long road.  2013 (pronounced Twenty-Thirteen) was like that for me.  Nothing spectacular, just a ho-hum kinda year.  Nothing wrong with that.

As I look back on the art side of 2013, (pronounced Twenty-Thirteen) I notice that my production of paintings was down somewhat.  I still go to my studio and paint every day, but instead of cranking out a painting every other day, I was taking a couple of weeks or so to complete a picture.  There are several reasons for my slowing down, but I think the biggest reason was that I was going for quality over quantity.  Fat load of good that did me!

So allow me, faithful reader, to show some of the paintings I produced in 2013 (pronounced Twenty-Thirteen):

The year didn't start out horribly.  I think I did a couple of nice pieces.

First Light, Fresh Snow

River's Edge

After The Storm

Pemaquid Porch
Hugging The Shore
Then I had a bit of a dry spell.  I painted some God-awful dogs that shall never see the light of day.
Like these:
Harbor Moon
Morning Haul

Then, I think I righted the ship as the year started to slip away:

Hanging Around On Fish Beach, Monhegan

Greener Pastures

And then there was this one...

In The Woodshed

Oh, there were more, but I think these are indicative enough of the past years efforts.  The best thing about a year like last one is that there's so much more to look forward to in the next year! 

I hope your 2013 (pronounced Twenty-Thirteen) was a happy one, and I wish all of us in the happy Maine-ly Painting family to have an awesome 2014!

Say it any way you like.


Friday, December 13, 2013

How The Grinch Designed Christmas

I will admit I am a big kid when it comes to Christmas.  As a matter of fact, my beautiful Ellen will frequently say, "When are you going to grow up?"  Even when it's not Christmas!  Strange...

Anyway, one of the things I like about the Yuletide Season is sitting around the TV, mug of nog in hand and watching the Christmas Specials.  Not necessarily the singing and dancing ones, (Although I'd love to see a repeat of an old Andy Williams Christmas Special) but the cartoons;  Charlie Brown and Snoopy.  Rudolph.  And of course Chuck Jones' masterpiece, Dr. Seuss's How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

Jones was a Loony Tunes animator from way back.  He brought Bugs Bunny to life in some of the funniest cartoons ever made, but he was really the man behind Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.  If you didn't know that before now, go back and watch the Grinch again and see the similarities.  Jones once admitted that at it's heart-- especially in the scenes with the Grinch's dog Max-- it's a Loony Tunes cartoon.

The other night while I was watching the Grinch, I noticed one thing I hadn't paid attention to for all these years until now:  Every scene that had a static shot (you know, the ones where the camera is not moving along) was designed as if it were a painting.

One more reason for me to love the Grinch!

The design used over and over again was what I call "One Third".  I do not have a doubt there is an official Art Name for it, but it goes like this:

Divide your composition into three unequal parts with one part being the dominant large shape, another part being one third the size of the big shape, and the last piece being one third the size of the second.  Get it?

Here's a couple of examples:

In the one above, Max is leaning against the house which is the dominant shape, while the snow is secondary and the sky is third.

Below, The sky is the dominant shape, the Grinch second and the rock he's drumming his fingers on is third.

One thing to keep in mind was that Jones didn't use the biggest shape as his Point of Interest, but rather to draw attention to the Point of Interest.  Look at the two examples above:  The house envelopes Max at the window, and in the other the sky is larger than the Grinch.

Another thing that Jones's artists did was incorporate a value pattern into these designs. Jones went with a basic four value scheme:  A Dark, a Dark Mid-Tone, a Light Mid-Tone and a Light.  I guess I could use up a ton of precious internet space trying to put into words the concept I'm thinking of, but Andrew Loomis in his awesome book Creative Illustration diagrams it best.  Check out these basic value patterns, because Jones used them in the Grinch:

There are more combinations possible than what Loomis showed, but he beautifully gives the idea of how to make a  Value Plan.  Now look and see how Jones used a value plan for these scenes:

In keeping with the "One Third" look, he was very careful to mass his values and not break them up willy-nilly, making a cohesive and engaging look.  But whether he used a Light surrounded by Mid-Tones, or a Dark surrounded by Light and Mid-tones--  whatever the Value Plan and Composition being used for a scene, have no doubt that it was carefully thought-out first.

Do you think of these things in your paintings?

I mention all of this not so that we all can make a better cartoon, but to show how basic compositional and design elements can effectively be used in any painting.  Be they cartoons, or my own work! 

So thank you Chuck Jones and thank you, Mr. Grinch for giving me a lovely lesson for Christmas--

I think my heart just grew three sizes...